The Times once invited famous authors to answer the question “What’s wrong with the world?” GK Chesterton gave the shortest replyDear sir,
What’s wrong with the world?
We like to think that the world’s problems are of someone else’s making…hate-filled terrorists, greedy CEOs, cynical politicians – we all have someone to blame.
But I think Chesterton got it right. It’s all of us. We make choices with terrible consequences.
Ethicist Peter Singer begins his first year classes at Princeton by posing this dilemma: you are walking past a fountain when you notice a child drowning in it. You are wearing a brand new and expensive pair of shoes. You don’t have time to take them off and save the child. So what do you do? Invariably every student says they would save the child and sacrifice the shoes. Singer challenges them on this. He points out that every year millions of children die from preventable or treatable diseases such as diarrhea. If we were prepared to donate our money to charities that work in the developing world the lives of almost every one of those children could be saved. But we don’t. We buy the expensive shoes instead.
There are critiques that could be made of Singer’s illustration, but I think the essential point stands. We have the capacity to save lives but we prefer to spend our money on other things.
Or take the environment. We know we are degrading it, making it much more difficult for future generations to utilise its resources. But most of us don’t care enough to do anything about it. We go on consuming as if it doesn’t matter and insist our politicians don’t do anything that will impinge on our lifestyle. Nero fiddled while Rome burned and we do much the same.
Bring it down to the interpersonal and think about the fact that half of all marriages break down. Almost every one of those has seen betrayals big and small; angry, wounding words; and the pain of rejection. These things can occur not only in marriages that break down but marriages that stay together and in a host of other relationships. We wound each other all too often.
Yes there are quite magnificent things that we do. But if we own our magnificence we must also own our wickedness.
According to the Bible we are magnificent – it says we are created in God’s image. We cannot help but reflect the character of God – we love, we act generously, we empathise with those who are wounded. But the Bible also teaches that we are “sinners” – we are not only flawed and broken but we willfully elect to act in ways that harm others and the world.
The Bible also says that God will hold us to account for this, that a time for judgement is coming. My trouble is believing that I deserve to be judged. I want to cry out that I am basically a good person. I want to blame someone else for all those dying children, for the build-up of greenhouse gases and the loss of species at an unprecedented rate. I want to qualify and excuse myself for the words I spoke that wounded another, and for the words of encouragement that were needed but I didn’t speak. I want to, but in those quiet moments when I am brutally honest with myself, I can’t.
What’s wrong with the world?